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    Watching the Watchers

    Chinese artist Ge Yulu has found a devious way to defy the country’s growing network of surveillance cameras: Staring back.

    For years, Ge Yulu had been constantly aware of the fact he was being watched by the surveillance cameras installed all over Beijing. One day, the young artist decided to turn the tables.

    He erected a makeshift scaffold next to a camera near his home, clambered on top of it, and sat down directly in front of the bulbous white security device. Then, he started staring.

    Ge spent the following weekends hunched over the camera, peering into the lens for up to three hours at a time. He hoped this practice would allow him to engage the country’s growing surveillance network on a human level, he says.

    “Behind every camera is a human being,” Ge tells Sixth Tone. “When I look into the camera, I’m actually looking at the guy behind the camera.”

    It was an idea that sprang from his time assisting the renowned artist Xu Bing with his groundbreaking 2017 film “Dragonfly Eyes” — a feature-length movie stitched together entirely from surveillance footage recorded by cameras in the Chinese capital.

    The project had forced Ge to spend countless hours watching blurry clips of Beijingers going about their day. It had given him an intense interest in the power of the gaze — and possible ways to play with it. 

    What would happen, he wondered, if he started gazing back?

    After nearly a month of staring sessions, Ge got his answer. A balding man dressed in an orange shirt suddenly appeared next to the scaffold, yelling at him to get away from the camera. The artist was delighted.

    After a bit of haggling, Ge convinced the man to take him to a nearby security office. There, he eventually tempted one of the man’s colleagues to sell him a copy of the security tape for 1,300 yuan (then $196). 

    The bribe netted him hours of footage of his own face — and a symbolic victory. For Ge, the transaction proved that China’s growing surveillance network is ultimately a social system designed and operated by human beings.

    “It represented the elimination of the barriers separating us,” says Ge. “When the guy copied the clip for me, he was no longer part of the system.”

    The stunt, which took place in 2016, is just one of several tricks Ge has pulled on the authorities during his short career. Unlike many Chinese artists of his generation, the 30-year-old focuses his energy on exploring the power relations that structure life in modern China.

    In his first solo exhibition, held at the gallery Beijing Commune last year, Ge described his work as an attempt to “challenge immanent power structures while creating new, dynamic relationships.”

    The urge to question authority has been with Ge since he was a mischievous teenager growing up in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. 

    As a university student, he once spent an afternoon graffitiing his name on buildings and roads all over campus. When he was caught, he rejected the school’s accusations of vandalism, insisting that the only thing he’d damaged was “the aesthetic underlying the middle-class order.”

    “I didn’t see graffiti as damaging the environment,” Ge says. “There was nature there — weeds and grass — before you poured asphalt onto it and destroyed it.”

    Unsurprisingly, the school didn’t agree, and ordered him to remove the tags. The episode, however, would later serve as inspiration for Ge’s most famous prank.

    After finishing his bachelor’s degree in Wuhan, Ge traveled to Beijing to study at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts. He soon noticed that near the campus, there was a small stretch of road that wasn’t marked with a road sign. He decided to install one himself.

    The student had a sign made in the exact same style as a regular Beijing street sign. He labeled it with his own name: Ge Yulu. (The last character of his given name, “lu,” means “road” in Chinese, so most people read the sign as meaning “Geyu Road.”)

    Ge secretly put up the sign one night in 2014, and the city appeared to simply accept its authority without question. Before long, the street was marked as “Geyu Road” on Google Maps and several Chinese navigation apps. The name even began appearing on official municipal signs, parking tickets issued by the local police, and addresses used by Beijing’s couriers.

    If Ge had kept quiet, the area would probably still be named Geyu Road to this day. But in 2017, he placed an identical sign in his graduation exhibition at the Academy, and the stunt became a media and social media sensation. Local authorities removed the original sign from the street a few weeks later.

    The project, Ge says, fulfilled a similar function to “Gazing Back.” It punctured the illusion that power in China only flows downwards from a giant, machine-like bureaucracy, exposing a messier, more human reality underneath.

    “I just moved things around,” Ge says. “I didn’t do anything (to ensure the new road sign was accepted); the social system did. The whole piece was about how social mechanisms operate.”

    For the artist, the COVID-19 pandemic has simply underlined how fragile and illusory these social mechanisms can be. It’s a theme he explored thoroughly in his debut solo exhibition, “Emergency Power System.”

    The gallery space was designed to make people feel like they had entered a “state of emergency” — something that wasn’t difficult to achieve in mid-2020. After passing through COVID-19 temperature checks, visitors found themselves in a multimedia exhibition that featured many of his previous projects, including “Geyu Road” and “Gazing Back.” The twist: The entire exhibition was powered by a single storage battery. If the battery went flat, the gallery would be plunged into darkness.

    Ge charged the battery himself every day by pedaling his bicycle. The long ride from his home in Yanjiao — a town several miles west of Beijing — to the gallery in the capital would normally generate enough power to keep the show running, Ge says. But the uncertainty helped keep the public on its toes, as well as disrupt the traditional relationship between artist and audience.

    “When the artist enjoys too many privileges, the connection between artist and audience turns into a form of worship,” he says. “It’s like they’re kneeling in front of the artworks and saying, ‘it’s incredible!’ … I don’t think it’s an equal way of communicating.”

    These days, Ge doesn’t have to travel quite so far to reach the gallery. He has moved to a neighborhood near an artist’s colony on the outskirts of Beijing, so he can be closer to his girlfriend, Ziwei.

    Ziwei has become an important part of Ge’s life and has even been featured in one of his recent projects. In 2019, the artist decided to demonstrate his devotion by blowing a love letter all the way from his home to hers. 

    It took him 67 long hours to complete the 69-kilometer journey, propelling the letter yard by yard using an electric fan. But it was worth the effort, Ge says.

    “After that, her family started to accept me,” he grins. “Although I’m poor, her family appeared to stop pressuring her to get a new boyfriend.”

    This year, Ge is busy organizing several more exhibitions and says he has more stunts in the pipeline. But like all good artists and pranksters, he’s keeping his plans under wraps for now.

    “I don’t like to reveal too much in advance,” he says. “If an idea comes, I just do it; if not, I just go out and have fun … I’m not diligent at all compared with other artists.”

    Editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Ge Yulu stares at a surveillance camera in Beijing, May 2016. Courtesy of Ge Yulu)